This article first appeared in “Vertical Magazine in Feb/Mar 2016. For the original article, please CLICK HERE
On a crisp, sunny day in October, I strapped into a Guimbal Cabri G2 for the first time at Precision Helicopters in Newberg, Ore. With me was Precision’s director of training, Nigel Cooper, who would be introducing me to the two-seat training helicopter. As I settled in for the flight, I was immediately impressed — by the clean panel layout, fantastic visibility, and obvious quality of the aircraft’s construction. But I didn’t realize how impressed I was until Cooper pressed the starter button and I jumped in my seat. The Cabri has a sophistication of design that is usually associated with turbineengine helicopters; subconsciously, my mind had prepared itself for the smooth sound of a turbine spooling up. I had to remind myself that the powerplant firing behind us was actually a Lycoming O360-J2A — the same piston engine that powers the Beta II version of the Robinson R22.
Originally certified by the European Aviation Safety Agency in 2007, the Hélicoptères Guimbal Cabri G2 is now certified in 24 countries, with around 80,000 flight hours accumulated by the global fleet. About 90 percent of those hours have been in flight training, with the Cabri making slow but steady inroads against the dominant piston-engine training helicopters: the R22 and the Sikorsky (formerly Schweizer) S-300. But while the Cabri has an established track record in countries such as the United Kingdom and New Zealand, it’s brand-new to North America. The United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) only certified the Cabri in early 2015, and Transport Canada certification isn’t expected until sometime in 2016. Like many helicopter pilots on this continent, I had heard about the Cabri for years (and caught a glimpse of it at recent Heli-Expos) but had no real sense of what it was like to fly. That changed with my visit to Precision, the Cabri’s U.S. launch customer and sole distributor. Precision now has four of the aircraft in its fleet, and plans to grow that number to at least six by mid-2016. After spending about an hour in one of them, I can understand why. The Cabri isn’t the cheapest training helicopter on the market, but with its modern, crashworthy design, it represents a quantum leap forward for a sector of the helicopter industry that has long been short on innovation. For students who are willing to pay a little more for new technology, Precision and its Cabris offer compelling value.
A FOCUS ON QUALITY
The history of Precision dates to 1983, when Dennis Sturdevant and his wife, Nancy, founded the company at the Twin Oaks Airpark in Hillsboro, Ore. Dennis was a young A&P mechanic and flight instructor, and Precision “was a two-person company at the time,” Nancy recalled.
From the beginning, she said, Precision aimed to offer the highest quality of training and meaningful career opportunities for its students. That emphasis on quality over quantity kept the company relatively small and family-focused, even as it grew its reputation and operations. In 1990, the Sturdevants purchased Chehalem Airpark near Newberg, and moved their business to the heart of Oregon’s wine country — a beautiful natural setting with diverse topography that is ideal for flight training. Their two sons, Tyler and Mitchell, grew up playing and working around planes and helicopters; both learned to fly, and Tyler is now the company’s director of operations. In 2011, after a storied career in which he accumulated more than 16,000 hours of flight time, Dennis Sturdevant passed away from cancer. Although it was a difficult time for his family and the company, they didn’t want to give up the business. “It’s kind of our life. We love aviation,” Nancy explained, adding, “We had a lot of customers who encouraged us.” To help guide Precision through its next phase, the Sturdevants partnered with David Rath, formerly president of Evergreen Helicopters prior to its sale to Erickson Aviation. Rath was familiar with Precision from his years of living and working in the area, and welcomed the opportunity to help grow the company without compromising its identity. “Even in bringing on partners, we’ve kept it family-based,” Nancy Sturdevant said. “I really appreciate that we’ve been able to carry on.”
Today, Precision comprises four distinct business units. As a Federal Aviation Regulations (FAR) part 135 charter and part 133 external load operator, Precision Helicopters offers a range of charter and utility services in a diverse fleet of turbine aircraft including the Airbus Helicopters AS350 and EC135, Bell 206, and MD 500. The maintenance side of the house is known as Precision Support Services; it is a FAR part 145 repair station and approved service center for Airbus, Bell, MD, Sikorsky, and now Guimbal helicopter models. A relatively new division is Precision Integrated Programs, which offers operational services and expertise in unmanned aircraft systems to government and other customers around the world. Then there is the flight training division, Precision Aviation Training. The school has two locations: one at Precision’s headquarters in Newberg, and one in Klamath Falls, Ore., through a partnership with Klamath Community College. With around 25 full-time students, Precision is not a particularly large school; although the company eventually expects to double those numbers, it has prioritized its traditional focus on quality over quantity. “We have a great reputation and we want to keep that,” explained Nigel Cooper. “That’s why we want to train really good pilots.” As a former Royal New Zealand Air Force pilot, Cooper brings uncommon expertise and worldly perspective to his position; his more than 20 years of flying experience have included formation aerobatics, search-and-rescue, and special operations. He originally joined Precision as director of college programs, leading the development of Klamath Community College’s two-year aviation degree program. Now, as director of training, he said, “I see my role as more of a mentor for the instructors, and the quality guy.” Precision’s lower-time flight instructors have other opportunities for mentoring, too.
Thanks to the company’s established relationships with operators such as Helicopter Transport Services, Precision’s instructors (and some students) often fill second-in-command positions during fire season. “The great thing about the Pacific Northwest is it’s home to a lot of large helicopter companies,” Cooper said, noting that pilots who return to flight instructing after 50 or 60 hours of Skycrane experience come back with new enthusiasm, skills, and insight. “We want these guys to go out and get experience. . . We know we send them into the community as good pilots and great ambassadors for Precision.”
REPLACING THE S-300
For most of its three decades of operation, Precision trained students in various iterations of the Hughes 269, the light piston-engine training helicopter that became the Schweizer 300 and, following Schweizer’s 2004 acquisition, the Sikorsky S-300. The model has long been valued as a trainer for its docile handling characteristics, but its older technology has become increasingly expensive to maintain. Moreover, there’s an industry consensus that support for the model has suffered under ownership by Sikorsky, for which S-300 revenues represent a financial rounding error.
When Rath joined Precision as managing director, it became apparent to him that the future of the S-300 was limited. “We started researching what aircraft we could go to for training,” he recalled. Friends in New Zealand suggested the Cabri, so Rath reached out to Bruno Guimbal, the aircraft’s designer and CEO and president of Hélicoptères Guimbal in Aix-en-Provence, France. Guimbal became convinced that Precision was the right operator to launch the Cabri in North America, and the companies embarked on a 16-month FAA certification process that culminated in February 2015 (see p.44, Vertical Show News, Heli-Expo 2015).
“It was a longer process than I had envisioned,” Rath acknowledged. “We actually had a helicopter here in the U.S. at the 2014 HAI [Heli-Expo] that we couldn’t fly.” Although the aircraft was placed in experimental status in order to conduct demonstration flights, “it was basically a paperweight for a year,” he said. Once certification was in hand, however, Precision wasted no time in putting its Cabris to work. And the helicopters are already earning their keep. Although the Cabri has a relatively high acquisition cost — starting at €330,000 (approximately US$355,000) — it is substantially easier to maintain than the S-300. For example, Rath said, while a 100-hour inspection on an S-300 can require up to 30 or 40 man-hours, the same inspection on the Cabri only requires about eight. He also pointed out that most components on the aircraft are on-condition (rather than life-limited as they are in the R22), which should yield long-term dividends for operators who invest in good preventive maintenance. “Your maintenance costs will reflect the effort you put into the aircraft,” Rath said. “Obviously we’re in a bit of a honeymoon, but from speaking to other Cabri operators and what we have experienced, the economics are proving to be good.”
If the Cabri differentiates itself in the maintenance hangar, its selling points are even more obvious on the flight line. In an industry in which many new-production aircraft are based on decades-old designs, it doesn’t take much to stand out; for example, the Cabri’s remote door lock feature never ceases to blow pilots’ minds, even though such systems are standard on new cars.
The Cabri uses the same engine as the R22 Beta II, but unlike the Beta II, it incorporates an LSE Plasma II HG electronic ignition system as well as a Bendix magneto. It has automatic, rather than manual, carburetor heat. And, instead of forcing pilots to rely on hard-to-read placards to calculate performance limits in flight, the Cabri performs those calculations automatically and presents them on an electronic display in the form of a multiple limits indicator, similar to the first limit indicator on Airbus Helicopters models. The resemblance isn’t coincidental. Before striking out on his own, Bruno Guimbal was a design engineer with Eurocopter (as Airbus Helicopters was previously known) and the company contributed funding to the Cabri project. During the straight-and level portions of my demo flight, I found the Cabri’s “electronic pilot monitor” flight screen to be so reminiscent of an Airbus Helicopters vehicle and engine multifunction display that I almost imagined myself in an AS350. That illusion went away during maneuvering. Compared to any hydraulically boosted machine, the Cabri is extremely heavy on the controls, with handling qualities closer to those of the MD 500 (like that aircraft, it incorporates a cyclic-mounted trim). According to Nigel Cooper, the heavy control feel, clockwise rotation of the main rotor, and flight characteristics associated with the Fenestron tail rotor (see sidebar) mean that most transitioning pilots need around five to seven hours to feel fully comfortable with the machine.
Although I didn’t find the Cabri to be difficult to fly, I certainly would have needed a few more flights to feel proficient in it. Consequently, I ran through a relatively conservative flight program — including normal maneuvers, and straight-in and hovering autorotations — then allowed Cooper to demonstrate what the aircraft was actually capable of. The Cabri’s high-inertia rotor system is fantastic in autorotation, allowing maneuvering through a generous range of airspeed (up to 110 knots) and rotor r.p.m. (450 to 610). Cooper demonstrated full-down autorotations from takeoff and from a high out-of-ground effect hover; the Cabri responded crisply to his control inputs, and touched down with plenty of cushion. He also demonstrated some assertive maneuvering at altitude that no R22 or other two-bladed rotor system could ever dream of.
The Cabri does suffer a bit in performance. The aircraft has an empty weight of around 925 pounds (420 kilograms) and a maximum gross weight of 1,543 lbs. (700 kg), higher than the R22 Beta II’s respective figures of 880 lbs. (400 kg) and 1,370 lbs. (620 kg). Although the Cabri is allowed to pull more power from its 180-horsepower Lycoming engine (it is derated to 145 horsepower, rather than the R22’s takeoff rating of 131 horsepower) it shows the effort when it’s heavily loaded. According to Bruno Guimbal, Hélicoptères Guimbal is working to certify the engine installation at 160 horsepower, which should provide a welcome boost in performance at lower altitudes. Perhaps the Cabri’s biggest differentiator is its crashworthiness. As a new helicopter design, the aircraft was certified to more stringent safety standards than its competitors; in addition to its rugged, monocoque composite fuselage, it boasts high-energy-absorbing stroking seats and a crashworthy fuel system. Bruno Guimbal explained that, when he was designing the helicopter, “I knew from Eurocopter that crashworthy technology really saves lives.” The Cabri experience has reinforced that. Of the 11 Cabri accidents that have occurred to date, none have been fatal or resulted in significant injuries.
Although Precision suffered a fatal S-300 crash in July 2015, David Rath was quick to note that the company doesn’t consider any helicopter model to be inherently unsafe. (The nighttime training accident was the only fatal crash in the company’s history; at press time, the cause had yet to be determined.) Yet the Cabri’s safety features will necessarily factor into any student’s decision to train in it, and “we’re remiss unless we communicate the safety benefits of the aircraft,” Rath said. When I did my own primary helicopter flight training in 2004, the Cabri wasn’t yet on the market. But if I had it to do over again, I would certainly be giving the Cabri, and Precision, a closer look.